Boys All-County Soccer
Indians junior defender leads steady group of honorees
by Chris Goltermann
East Coweta’s boys soccer team was destined for another one-goal game late in overtime battling down south in Lowndes during the first round of the Class AAAAAA state soccer playoffs in late April.
In a tie game, the Indians’ thoughts may have been slowly creeping toward penalty kicks and the literal hit-and-miss of what can happen in soccer’s ultimate tiebreaker.
Jairo Ruiz wasn’t going to let it get that far — at least if the junior defender could help it.
“He came to me and said, ‘if you let me move up front, I’ll score,’” said East Coweta head coach Todd Beldon. “So I moved him up there. Sure enough, he did.”
One goal, be it a playoff game-winner, surely does not a Player of the Year make, but Ruiz made up for less gaudy numbers in 2014 by being a calm presence in the middle of the field for the Indians during a trip to the second round of the state tournament.
A season that also included playoff runs by Trinity Christian and The Heritage School’s trip to the GISA Class AAA Final Four, produced a handful of individual efforts worthy of the honor.
Selections were made by the sports staff following nominations made by the county’s five head coaches.
But Ruiz’s abilities, performance and worth to his team against some of the top competition in GHSA’s highest classification earned the Indian a slight edge while trying to exceed one of the best seasons in school history in 2013 — a near impossible task.
The co-captain scored five goals and added seven assists while among the most gifted defenders and ball-handlers in a county that again showcased its share of talent this spring.
In a year where East Coweta needed this year’s group of returners to elevate their games, Ruiz showcased his skill not only as a clutch scorer, but as a centerpiece of an Indians defense that consistently played opponents within a single goal in a 10-10 season while moving from an outside midfield position.
Despite the loss of five seniors that earned All-County honors in 2013 — led by co-Players of the Year Ian and Conner Antley — East Coweta came within a hair of returning to the state quarterfinal round for the second straight year.
All 10 of East Coweta’s losses came against state-playoff opponents — and all but one in a one-goal game — including a 1-0 loss in the second-round to Harrison, which eventually made a return trip to the Class AAAAAA Final Four.
Ruiz also wasn’t alone. The Indians and Northgate, each of whom battled for this year’s Coweta Cup crown in a one-goal game won by East Coweta, garnered five All-County players. The Indians battled back from a 2-5 start to 2014 that included five consecutive one-goal losses to teams that finished with a combined record of 71-18-6 this season.
Heritage, which got a boost from a group of eight seniors and the arrival of first-time goalkeeper Cole Jones, also had three players honored on the team. The Hawks, led by first-year coach Nathan Watts, lost just two games during the regular season — both to Region 1-AAA champion Holy Spirit — yet embraced the role of underdogs in the GISA state playoffs.
In a year that also include a pair of gutsy wins in an intense rivalry with Trinity, Heritage’s boys confidently marched past Westfield in a 3-0 shutout in the opening round before knocking off 3-AAA champion Deerfield-Windsor on the road to reach the program’s first state semifinal since 2006 while finishing with a 15-3 record.
Despite losing a large senior class, the county rivalry among GISA programs should only continue into 2015. Trinity finished with a record well over .500 with a roster including several key juniors led by midfielder Keith Lyons.
Lyons led all goal scorers within the county with 28 goals and 11 assists.
The All-County roster includes three goalkeepers that expect to return next spring — Jones, East Coweta junior Chad Holland and Northgate sophomore Cooper Morrison.
Morrison and Holland traded key saves in a 2-1 match that decided this year’s Coweta Cup title in a game played at Drake Stadium.
Holland finished with 74 saves and four shutouts while Morrison held his own in an Area 4-AAAAA alignment that included repeat champion McIntosh.
The Viking keeper posted seven shutouts while blanking Starr’s Mill and Mt. Zion-Jonesboro in back-to-back games while fighting for the final playoff berth in 4-AAAAA. Both Northgate and Newnan, which struggled through a 1-15-1 year, missed the postseason.
Defender Hunter Spradlin represents the Cougars on this year’s All-County team.
Northgate, though, still finished the season at 9-6-1 overall and allowed just 1.3 goals-per-game outside of a 7-0 loss to McIntosh, which finished unbeaten for the second consecutive year while earning a No. 1 ranking nationally.
In goal for Heritage, Jones harnessed his athletic skills in football and basketball into a stellar debut for the Hawks. In 16 games, the 6-foot-3 sophomore made 88 saves, playing much like a superhero in his Spider-Man goalie jersey. He allowed 12 goals over his first 15 games in a span that included seven shutouts. He also stopped seven penalty kicks including four in his PK debut during a win over Trinity.
On the other end of the field, East Coweta entered the spring wondering how it would replace the 78 goals and 21 assists produced by the Antley brothers in 2013. The result was a more balanced attack that saw six Indians including Ruiz scoring at least five goals.
Senior midfielder and co-captain Zac Slaton led the way with 13 to go with seven assists as the team’s top point-scorer.
Fellow senior Todd Davis had seven goals and seven assists in the midfield while East Coweta forwards Cole Antley and Austin Cosby finished with 10 and 12 goals respectively. Antley, a junior, added six assists while Cosby had one in his sophomore year.
At Northgate, senior Stephen Baxley and junior Brandon Stahl scored their share of key goals for a Viking team that has four underclassmen earning All-County selections. Both scored twice in a Coweta Cup victory over Newnan. Baxley also had a game-winning goal in a 1-0 victory over Starr’s Mill.
Sophomores Jamie Skalski and Robbie McNeal, meanwhile, provided a glimpse of the future while balancing the lineup at midfield and on defense. Skalski was solid on both ends of the field while McNeal was the backbone of Northgate’s back line in front of Morrison in goal.
Along with Jones, teammates Cole Bridges and David Martin also represent The Heritage School on this year’s team.
Bridges, a senior center midfielder, capped off this varsity career with nine goals and 11 assists this spring including a key pass on the Hawks’ game-winner against Deerfield-Windsor in the Class AAA quarterfinals.
The above pass found Martin, who followed through with arguably the biggest of his 12 goals to beat Deerfield in the closing 30 seconds of a final overtime. He also added six assists this season.
Player of the Year
Jairo Ruiz, East Coweta, Defense, Jr.
Pos. Player School Year
Forward Cole Antley East Coweta Jr.
Midfield Stephen Baxley Northgate Sr.
Midfield Cole Bridges Heritage School Sr.
Forward Austin Cosby East Coweta So.
Midfield Todd Davis East Coweta Sr.
Goalie Chad Holland East Coweta Jr.
Goalie Cole Jones Heritage School So.
Midfield Keith Lyons Trinity Christian Jr.
Forward David Martin Heritage School Jr.
Defense Robbie McNeal Northgate So.
Goalie Cooper Morrison Northgate So.
Midfield Jamie Skalski Northgate So.
Midfield Zac Slaton East Coweta Sr.
Defense Hunter Spradlin Newnan Jr.
Forward Brandon Stahl Northgate Jr.
Honorable Mention: East Coweta — Justin Sharp, Midfield, Jr.; Nick Martin, Midfield, Jr.; Mason Winkley, Defense, Jr.; Diego Velazquez, Defense, Sr.; Newnan —Cody Lee, Jordan Lynch, Marque’l Gould, Brandon Wulf, Fletcher Hall. Northgate — Kevin Cheng, Jack Cheng, Brian Rudd, Alex Roemer; Heritage School — Tanner Brandner, Defense, Sr., David Bready, Defense, Sr.; Trinity Christian — Korey McGinnis, Forward; Will Townsend, Forward; Josiah Gordon, Goalie.